This is a locator map for the Gulf Cooperation Council member states: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s navy captured an oil tanker Thursday in the Gulf of Oman that only months earlier had seen its cargo of Iranian oil seized by the United States over sanctions linked to Tehran’s nuclear program, further escalating the tensions gripping the Mideast’s waterways.

The vessel was previously known as the Suez Rajan when it was involved in a yearlong dispute beginning in 2021 that ultimately saw the U.S. Justice Department take the 1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil on it.

The seizure also comes after weeks of attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea, including their largest barrage ever of drones and missiles launched late Tuesday. That has raised the risk of possible retaliatory strikes by U.S.-led forces now patrolling the vital waterway, especially after a United Nations Security Council vote on Wednesday condemning the Houthis and as American and British officials warned of potential consequences over the attacks.

Iran’s state-run television acknowledged the seizure late Thursday afternoon, hours after armed men boarded it, linking it to the earlier oil seizure. It said Iran’s navy, rather than its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, conducted the seizure. Past tense incidents at sea have largely involved the Guard.

The Iranian navy’s “seizure of the oil tanker does not constitute hijacking; rather, it is a lawful undertaking sanctioned by a court order and corresponds to the theft of Iran’s very own oil,” Iran’s mission to the United Nations told The Associated Press in a statement. “Adhering to the established legal procedures is the most prudent approach for the resolution of this matter.”

The St. Nikolas was earlier named the Suez Rajan, associated with the Greek shipping company Empire Navigation. In a statement to the AP, Athens-based Empire Navigation acknowledged losing contact with the vessel, which has a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek national.

“Empire have no such knowledge of a court order or the Iranian navy having seized their vessel, and have still not been contacted by anyone,” the company said.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, said Thursday’s seizure began early in the morning in the waters between Oman and Iran in an area transited by ships coming in and out of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes.

The U.K. military-run group described receiving a report from the ship’s security manager of hearing “unknown voices over the phone” alongside with the ship’s captain. It said further efforts to contact the ship had failed and that the men who boarded the vessel wore “black military-style uniforms with black masks.”

The private security firm Ambrey said that “four to five armed persons” boarded the ship, which it identified as the oil tanker St. Nikolas. It said the men covered the surveillance cameras as they boarded.

The tanker had been off the city of Basra, Iraq, loading crude oil bound for Aliaga, Turkey, for the Turkish refinery firm Tupras. Satellite-tracking data analyzed by the AP last showed the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker had turned and headed toward the port of Bandar-e Jask in Iran.

Attention began focusing on the Suez Rajan in February 2022, when the group United Against Nuclear Iran said it suspected the tanker carried oil from Iran’s Khargh Island, its main oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf. Satellite photos and shipping data analyzed at the time by the AP supported the allegation.

For months, the ship sat in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Singapore before suddenly sailing for the Texas coast without explanation. The vessel discharged its cargo to another tanker in August, which released its oil in Houston as part of a Justice Department order.

In September, Empire Navigation pleaded guilty to smuggling sanctioned Iranian crude oil and agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine over a case involving the tanker.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast, did not respond to a request for comment over the incident.

After the vessel, then-Suez Rajan, headed for America, Iran seized two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, including one with cargo for major U.S. oil company Chevron Corp. In July, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s naval arm threatened further action against anyone offloading the Suez Rajan, with state media linking the recent seizures to the cargo’s fate.

Since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal, waters around the strait have seen a series of ship seizures by Iran, as well as assaults targeting shipping that the U.S. Navy has blamed on Tehran. Iran and the Navy also have had a series of tense encounters in the waterway, though recent attention has been focused on the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

The U.S. and its allies also have been seizing Iranian oil cargoes since 2019 to enforce sanctions over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. That has led to a series of attacks in the Mideast attributed to the Islamic Republic, as well as ship seizures by Iranian military and paramilitary forces that threaten global shipping.

The Houthis say their attacks are aimed at halting the suffering of Palestinians in Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, the rebels have increasingly targeted ships with tenuous or no ties to Israel.

Meanwhile, satellite tracking data analyzed by the AP on Thursday showed that an Iranian cargo vessel suspected of being a spying platform in the Red Sea had left the waterway. The data showed the Behshad had transited through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait into the Gulf of Aden.

The Behshad has been in the Red Sea since 2021 off Eritrea’s Dahlak archipelago. It arrived there after Iran removed the Saviz, another suspected spy base in the Red Sea that had suffered damage in an attack that analysts attributed to Israel amid a wider shadow war of ship attacks in the region.

___

Associated Press journalist Amir Vahdat in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2023. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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